The House That Will Not Stand

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By Marcus Gardley

Directed by Chay Yew

Produced by Victory Gardens Theater, Chicago

Sinister Forces at Work in a Mystical New Orleans

Last year, Victory Gardens audiences saw the world premiere of Marcus Gardley’s An Issue of Blood. Set during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, the play examined the birth of institutional racism in England’s North American colonies, which is an important part of history to remember, since racism is often excused as natural and inevitable. Now, audiences have the chance to see the Midwest premiere of The House That Will Not Stand, which shows how racial relationships were upended in Louisiana following the transition from French to American control. In subject matter, the play is somewhat similar to John Guare’s A Free Man of Color, a 2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist, and Gardley draws his premise from Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba. But this dark fairy tale, with copious verbal combat and African-American spirituality, is very much Gardley’s own.

La Veuve (Linda Bright Clay) and Makeda (Jacqueline Williams). Photos by Michael Courier.

Lazar is dead. His waxy corpse descends from the ceiling on a bier in the first minute of the play, and his first mourner, Madame La Veuve (Linda Bright Clay), a free woman of color, loudly wails while plucking his rings. She is stopped by the Albans family slave, Makeda (Jacqueline Williams), but in a scene that’s straight out of Plautus, bribes Makeda with gold to divulge juicy gossip about the rich white man’s death. Makeda obliges: Lazer choked on a fishbone after arguing with his placée, Beatrice (Lizan Mitchell), because she did not want their daughters to become placées themselves. That’s not good enough for Madame La Veuve, who is determined to see Beatrice Albans destroyed in revenge for a long-ago insult. She warns Makeda that her best course of action is to accuse Beatrice of murder, because Louisiana’s recent admission to the Union means that laws will be changing very soon, and Beatrice, who is already rumored to be a poisoner and a witch, can be assured neither of inheriting Makeda nor of having the power to free her.

La Veuve (Linda Bright Clay), Makeda (Jacqueline Williams), and Beatrice Albans (Lizan Mitchell).

You may be asking yourself what a placée is. Plaçage was a legal form of polygamy practiced in French and Spanish colonies in which a white man purchased a creole woman, who then was afforded the social status of a mistress, and had some of the property rights of a common law wife. Beatrice finds the idea of any of her three daughters entering such an arrangement utterly loathsome, although two, Agnès (Diana Coates) and Odette (Aneisa Hicks), fully embrace it as a way to gain privilege and wealth, and have their eyes set on a cute white boy called Le Pip. The third daughter, significantly named Maude Lynn (Angela Alise), is a pious Catholic to a degree even her mother, who was inspired by Bernarda Alba, finds obnoxious. Rather than locking her daughters up as a display of mourning, Beatrice intends to do so to shield them from the world forever. Nobody else likes this idea, and Beatrice’s slightly mad sister, Marie-Joesphine (Penelope Walker), has a vision of Lazer’s angry spirit crushing the house and Beatrice with it, unless his daughters can somehow escape. Meanwhile, Beatrice discovers that her archnemesis Madame La Veuve was correct, and that Lazar’s white wife has inherited everything. But she’s not ready to give up by a long shot.

Maude Lynn (Angela Alise), Odette (Aneisa Hicks), and Agnes (Diana Coates).

Gardley says in an interview in the program that he enjoys confusing an audience about what tone a play is establishing, because he believes that’s more true to life. The stakes could not be direr, and yet, the characters find time to trade barbs, engage in crass sexual humor, and dance in time-bending interludes which incorporate African-American music from 1813 to the present. Beatrice and La Veuve are particularly accomplished put-down artists, with La Veuve’s declaration that she intends to squash Beatrice like a fat cockroach and scrape her from her sole and into the sewer being a completely typical exchange between them. Beatrice is very similar to the character Mitchell played in An Issue of Blood, and Mitchell has both her character’s humanity and the barbed shell that conceals it down pat. However, she croaks through her Cajun accent, which sometimes causes difficulty, but watching Bernarda Alba’s stand-in get cussed out for ten minutes straight, twice, is delightful for any theatre-goer.

Makeda (Jacqueline Williams) and Marie-Josephine (Penelope Walker)

With its use of magic, focus on the girls’ hopes for a fairy-tale romance, and fantastic costumes designed by Izumi Inaba, The House That Will Not Stand interestingly uses dark fantasy to present a lesson in history. From Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, which beat A Free Man of Color for the Pulitzer, to at least as far back as Dion Boucicault’s 1859 play The Octoroon, dramas about the possession of a piece of real estate have been a staple of the American stage, often with the races of the competing inhabitants having been a heavy influence on the action. Gardley is tapping into something at the core of how American playwrights have always perceived power in this country, and though the portentous ending is not totally earned, Williams’s performance in her final scene is breathtaking. Audiences who go to The House That Will Not Stand should expect to be thrown for a loop; if they can accept that, than they will find a lot to enjoy.

Recommended

Jacob Davis

3jacob.davis@gmail.com

Reviewed June 17, 2016

This play has been Jeff recommended.

For more information, see The House That Will Not Stand’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $15-60; to order, call 773-871-3000 or visit victorygardens.org. Performances are Tuesdays at 7:30 pm (except June 28), Wednesdays at 7:30 pm (except June 29, when it’s at 2:00 pm), Thursdays at 7:30 pm (except July 7), Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 3:00 and 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 3:00 pm through July 10. Running time is two hours and fifteen minutes, with one intermission.